The office of Steward of England was one of the Great Offices of State, which originally appears to have been largely honorific and regarded as attached to the earldom of Leicester and was therefore inherited by the subsequent Beaumont earls. The last Beaumont Earl of Leicester died in 1204, after which the title passed to the family of Montfort and thereafter to the Lancastrian descendants of Edmund Crouchback.
The origins of the office of Steward
It was customary for kings to lend dignity to themselves and their position by requiring selected nobles to perform the mundane tasks of serving them at table, particularly during important ceremonial events such as coronations. These duties of a steward were not regarded as in any way demeaning by the nobles required to perform them. Quite the contrary, it was a highly desirable position to hold, as it guaranteed a close relationship to the king and later often evolved into a specific office in the royal administration.
This was certainly the case in France when between the years 1047 and 1191 the office of dapifer or Steward of France was recognised as the highest royal office. It was in emulation of this practice that the Dukes of Normandy introduced their own office of dapifer a position that was noticably filled by Osbern son of Herfast de Crepon. and his son William.
The Stewards of England
1. Grentmesnil, Beaumont and Bigod
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica it was Henry I who first introduced the office into England when he appointed Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester, and Hugh Bigod, 1st Earl of Norfolk as his joint hereditary stewards. However other sources show one Hugh de Grentmesnil, who died in 1098 as holding the office of Steward of England. This Hugh was one of the original Companions of the Conqueror, later Baron of Hinckley in Leicestershire and sheriff of that county.
As was common at the time whilst his eldest son Robert de Grentmesnil succeeded to his Norman estates, it was his younger son Ives de Grentmesnil who inherited his lands in England, specifically the Honour of Leicester. This Ives left on crusade soon after his father's death, and funded his participation by mortgaging his lands to Robert de Beaumont. It is possible that Ives, who died without issue around the year 1118, and Robert de Grentmesnil who similarly died without issue in 1136, would have been regarded as having inherited the title from their father, although there appears to be no specific evidence that either Ives, who died without issue around the year 1118 and Robert de Grentmesnil who similarly died without issue in 1136, were ever Stewards of England.
Unfortunately much of the genealogy of the Grentmesnil family is confused, which is to say that different genealogists have formed an entirely different opinion on matters. It does however appear fairly certain that Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester married Pernel de Grentmesnil, a granddaughter of the original Hugh, although by which son seems disputed; and many sources show that Roger Bigod, father of Hugh Bigod married and Adelaide or Adeliza, a daughter of Hugh de Grentesmesnil although sources differ as to whether or not this Adeliza was the mother of Roger's children.
But it therefore appears to be the case that there were two seperate Anglo-Norman barons, both of whom had some family connection with the Grentmesnils and some claim on the office of Steward. This would provide an explanation as to why Companions of the Conqueror created two joint hereditary stewards. The joint stewardship persisted until at least 1186, but sometime afterwards the Earl of Leicester appears to have enjoyed sole rights to the office having bought out the rights of the earls of Norfolk for the price of ten knights fees. Since Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester appears to be the first Beaumont to be recognised as sole steward, this transaction would have taken place before his death in 1190.
2. Quincy and Montfort
Robert Fitz Pernel, the last Beaumont Earl of Leicester died childless in 1204, and the Beaumont fortune fell to be divided between his two sisters Amice and Margaret. Amice married a Simon de Montfort, whilst Margaret de Beaumont married a Saher de Quincy. This Saher de Quincy was Steward of England from 1205 to 1207 until he was made Earl of Winchester in 1207, after which the dignity of Leicester was claimed by the de Montfort family as successors to the Beaumonts and held by two gentlemen by the same of Simon de Montfort, both of whom claimed the honour of being Steward.
It was the younger of these Simon de Montforts, probably influenced by the practice in France where the office of steward had long been regarded as the highest office of state, who appears to have believed that this hereditary stewardship entitled him to a similarly high position in the government of England. During the Barons' War when Montfort was effectively in charge of the country for the brief period during the years 1264-1265, it was as 'Steward of England' that he styled himself in official documents and justified his assumption of power.
With the death and defeat of Simon de Montfort at the battle of Evesham in 1265 his esates and titles fell into the possession of the crown and de Montfort's old earldom of Leicester was granted by Henry III to his second son Edmund Crouchback and Edmund was also appointed as Steward, but only for life.
Edmund's son Thomas 'the Martyr' Plantagenet was subsequently appointed Steward of England by Edward II in 1308 largely as a quid pro quo for his support against the other barons who were clamouring for the banishment of the royal favourtite Piers Gaveston. Thomas was later to turn against both Piers Gaveston and Edward and following the precedent set by Montford, Thomas was to claim that the office of Steward of England was invested with powers to correct the governance of the realm. During the years 1314 to 1318 when he was essentially in charge of the country, Thomas was to assert that the office of Steward was "the second personage in the realm and supreme judge in parliament".
Thomas came to a sticky end in 1322 as he was beheaded for treason after his defeat in the battle of Boroughbridge, but Henry of Lancaster subsequently in 1324 succeeded in recovering much of his brother's former estates and titles including that of Steward. Henry later became the head of the Royal Council established in the aftermath of the successful invasion of England by Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer and was responsible for supervising the coronation of Edward III in 1327.
Henry's son Henry of Grosmont was subsequently recognised as Steward and on Henry's death in 1361 it was John of Gaunt, the ultimate heir to Henry's Lancastrian inheritance who subsequently assumed the office of steward. Although there was initially an hiatus, as originally the title of Earl of Leicester did not pass to John but rather to the Count of Holland. John therefore seems to have claimed the office on the basis that it was annexed to the honour of Hinckley. (Although the Encyclopedia Britannica dismisses this claim as "ingenious but quite unfounded", it is clearly based on the original title of Hugh de Grentesmil as Baron of Hinckley.)
Following the death of John of Gaunt on the 3rd February 1399, whilst the office might have been claimed by his son Henry, he had been previously exiled by Richard II, and it was therefore granted to Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York who was appointed to the office on the 20th March 1399. Following Henry's return to England in July 1399, ostensibly with the intention of reclaiming his inheritance, Edmund of Langley relinquished the office in August 1399, a month prior to Henry's usurpation of the crown in September 1399.
Whether Henry can ever said to have assumed the office of Steward following resignation of Edmund is not clear (it might be said that he had more important things on his mind.) In any event, after Thomas of Lancaster, none of his Lancastrian successors appear to have received any clear unambiguous grant of the office; but whatever claim that Henry did have was clearly merged in the crown when Henry became Henry IV in the September of 1399.
Henry subsequently appointed his son Thomas, Duke of Clarence as Steward, a position that he held until his death at the battle of Baugé in 1421. After the death of Thomas, the office of Steward was allowed to fall vacant, and since that date there have been no further permanent appointments to the office.
The office of Steward
Originally the office of Steward appears to have been largely honorific and largely consisted of the performance of certain ceremonial duties at the coronation. The efforts of Simon de Montfort and Thomas of Lancaster to imbue the office with some kind of constitutional significance were ultimately unsuccessful and entirely a product of their own ambitions.
The actual duties that came to be regarded as the responsibility of the Steward did not appear until the late fourteenth century during the tenure of John of Gaunt. In 1330 Henry of Lancaster, acting in his capacity as president of the council, had organised the coronation of Edward III. John of Gaunt used this precedent to similarly take control of the coronation of the young Richard II in 1377, arguing that it was Henry's position as Steward that entitled him to exercise that responsibilty. He also asserted that part of the Steward's duties where to hear and determine the claims to perform coronation services, thereby establishing the origin of what was afterwards called the Court of Claims. In 1397 John of Gaunt was to use Thomas of Lancaster's claim to be the "supreme judge in parliament" to additionally assert his right to preside over the trial of the Lords Appellant in 1397.
As noted above, Thomas, Duke of Clarence was the last permanent office holder and since his death in 1421 only pro tem appointments have been made to the office, whose holders have generally taken the title of 'Lord High Steward'. These individuals were appointed to carry out one of the two very specific functions established by John of Gaunt relating to the coronation and the trial of peers. (And for which see Lord High Steward.)
THE STEWARDS OF ENGLAND
Joint hereditary Stewards Between 1135 and 1186/1190
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for LORD HIGH STEWARD
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com